There are many ways to measure intensity of your training- which one is right for you?
Our bodies delivers energy to the muscular system in a number of important ways.
The science which concerns itself with the various ways muscles receive energy is known as energy metabolism. Now, the degree to which your body “chooses” its energy source is dependent on the type and intensity of exercise you are engaged in.
If we take for granted that measuring intensity in training is necessary, it becomes important to choose a method of measurement that fits your needs. Below we will take a look at some common measures of exercise intensity and break down some of the positive and negative aspects of each system.
Rating of perceived exertion
This measure, typically on a scale of 6-20 (originally known as the “Borg Scale”), is utilized by athletes; athletes simply express how hard they perceive themselves to be working. This measurement system is also common in the medical field, where it can be used to document a patients exertion during a test.
Cheap, assessable and easy to understand.
Sometimes we are not the best judge of our own efforts. Innate in the word “perception” is the understanding that this measure is perhaps, less than perfectly scientific.
There are a number of common systems where swimmers use heart rate to monitor training intensity. In these systems, heart rates correspond with specific training zones. A common system used around the world (although established in Ann Arbor, MI) is the “color system”. In this system, target heart rates correspond with specific colors. Similarly, the Aussie system (popularized by Bill Sweetenham in his book “Championship Swim Training”) builds training zones from a theoretical max heart rate. A rough way to estimate max heart rate is to subtract your age from 220.
Reasonably accurate, once the system is understood. With the ubiquity of smart watches and fit-bits, many people already have a fairly accurate heart rate monitor with them at all times. A quick glance at one’s wrist can give you a reasonably accurate glimpse of training intensity. Of course, taking your pulse is free… so the price is right.
In the absence of a heart rate monitor, it requires a bit of quick math, memorization or pre-preparation on your training plan. Can also take some time to learn- not to mention you need to stop your activity (at least for a few seconds) to gauge your heart rate.
Perhaps the simplest system to comprehend and implement, the “Gears” system is a rating of intensity on a scale of 1-5, where 1 is fairly easy and 5 is a max effort that could only be sustained for a short amount of time. We have seen this system implemented many way; a) in connection with heart rate zones or, b) as a general self perception of training intensity. This is a great system for trainers who value simplicity over the perfection.
Easy to understand and implement. Free.
Doesn’t allow for a tremendous variety in intensity. Other systems can allow for more subtlety between training zones. Without an ostensible tie to heart rate or another similar metric, this system may not be as accurate (however, in its’ defense, it is not trying to be).
We took a deep dive on this topic in last week’s blog. Simply put VO2 Max is a measurement for aerobic capacity; in other words, the amount of oxygen that an athlete can utilize during exercise. VO2 Max testing is administered through a respiratory mask, which can measure the rate, volume and percentage of oxygen. The athlete is asked to perform increasingly difficult exercise and ratings are taking which can be used to determine future training intensities.
Accurate information about aerobic capacity and aerobic power.
Expensive, impractical for daily use and requires significant expertise to administer. Nearly impossible to administer with perfect accuracy in a pool.
Arterial blood is drawn immediately post exercise and is tested for a “lactate reading”- measured in mmols/ liter. Like VO2 Max, the information established through lactate testing has played an indeterminately large role in our understanding of exercise physiology and energy metabolism- most coaches are likely better served to utilize that knowledge in their planning, rather than testing their own athletes.
Very accurate. Provides detailed information about the interaction between the aerobic and anaerobic systems.
Expensive, impractical for daily use and requires significant expertise to administer.
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Founder, Techniq Group